“Everything we do needs to impact Singapore, Singaporeans and Science.”
For A*STAR Chief Executive Officer Frederick Chew, these three S’s represent the agency’s mission since its earliest days. Indeed, A*STAR is perhaps one of the most prominent manifestations of the Republic’s long-term commitment to research and development (R&D), with its evolution into a scientific powerhouse mirroring Singapore’s ongoing transition into an innovation-driven economy.
Still, R&D is far from the end of the road. As succinctly summarized by Chew, for the agency to continue creating impact, its research efforts must go beyond the laboratory and benefit the economy and society—helping Singapore and its denizens address national challenges, one experiment at a time.
As the agency hits its 30th anniversary milestone, A*STAR is now challenged to sustain its tradition of excellence. According to Chew, such a lofty goal is possible with the help of the brilliant minds nurtured by the agency and close collaborations with other players in the local research, innovation and enterprise ecosystem.
In a recent conversation with A*STAR Research, Chew revisits A*STAR’s notable milestones and shares his thoughts on the way forward in the years to come.
When you first took on the mantle as A*STAR CEO in 2019, what were the immediate tasks and challenges that you needed to address?
The first was to strengthen scientific excellence by focusing on investigator-led research, building programs that meet national needs and retaining talent. Second, together with the senior management, we sought to better translate A*STAR’s research. Given how small Singapore’s market size is and how hard it is for R&D to cross the ‘valley of death,’ it was important to find ways to convert research into products, platforms and policy shifts.
To help companies scale up, we focused on creating platforms that could be force multipliers for research translation. These include the Diagnostics Development Hub (DxD Hub), which played a key role in facilitating the development of local COVID-19 diagnostic tests at the start of the pandemic, as well as the Experimental Drug Development Centre (EDDC), which works with public sector and industry partners to translate great science into innovative healthcare solutions, with an emphasis on diseases prevalent in Asia.
Third, we worked hard to synergize efforts among all Research Institutes (RIs) and entities that number more than 30, so that the sum of the whole is more than the sum of the parts. The RIs are increasingly cross-leveraging on each other’s strengths, even in ways that are not immediately obvious. For instance, biomedical labs may be automated through Industry 4.0 technologies, while trust technologies may be harnessed by the logistics industry
To achieve this effect, we have set up Horizontal Technology Programme Offices (HTPOs) that link efforts and capabilities across various RIs. These HTPOs span Artificial Intelligence, Analytics and Informatics; Robotics; Health and Medical Technologies; Infectious Diseases; Urban and Green Technology; Agritech and Aquaculture as well as Social Sciences and Technology.
How does A*STAR encourage interdisciplinary collaboration?
Apart from creating seven HTPOs, we provide seed funding for combined grant applications—bringing in the best from the Biomedical Research Council (BMRC) and the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC).
Before the pandemic, we also started what we hope will be a new tradition, where our RIs take turns to have open days to let the rest of their peers and the public know what they’re doing. Those who visit and do something similar can then get in touch to collaborate.
Another area of collaboration we’d like to emphasize is with the social sciences.If you look at the complex questions societies are trying to solve, they’re not all about the hard sciences.There are other human factors to consider.
This is why over the past few years, A*STAR has been nurturing social science-related initiatives. In the Institute Of High Performance Computing (IHPC), we have a Social and Cognitive Computing unit and late last year, we set up a Social Sciences and Technology HTPO to integrate A*STAR’s social sciences efforts. To this end, we are hiring psychologists and design thinkers, among others.
We are also in the midst of firming up a memorandum of understanding with a local Institute of Higher Learning (IHL) for a joint lab, where we will couple A*STAR’s cognitive computing expertise with the IHL’s social science knowledge.
What are some of A*STAR’s key highlights in the past 30 years?
In the domain of health and human potential (HHP), we have a cohort study called Growing Up In Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes (GUSTO) that has spawned many ongoing research efforts to understand how a child’s potential can be maximized and how pregnant mothers can be better taken care of.
In 2015, GUSTO recommended addressing gestational diabetes, leading to policy interventions. Today, gestational diabetes screening is done for all pregnant mothers in Singapore’s public healthcare institutions. At the same time, GUSTO has studied the attention span of children, leading to recommendations to not give our kids too much screen time.
A*STAR is also a strong proponent and catalyst for the local biotech ecosystem. As of 2019, there are over 100 biotech companies in Singapore, and more than half have a significant partnership with A*STAR, such as a joint laboratory. In addition, more than a third of them are A*STAR spinoffs. We hope that over the next five years, Singapore’s biotech ecosystem becomes the Southeast Asian version of the US’ Bay Area or Boston.
In terms of manufacturing, trade and connectivity (MTC), I can offer two examples. The first is with the British aero-engine manufacturing company Rolls-Royce. Between A*STAR and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore), we have two joint labs with Rolls-Royce.
For instance, the Smart Manufacturing Joint Lab between A*STAR, Rolls-Royce and Singapore Aero Engine Services Pte Ltd (SAESL) is meant to accelerate solution development for automatic, digital, adaptive manufacturing and repair in the aerospace industry. Since 2017, the joint lab has seen nearly 30 R&D projects from around 100 companies of which over 40 are local, creating a multiplier effect across the ecosystem.
Next is the semiconductor and machinery equipment company Applied Materials (AMAT). In 2011, A*STAR’s Institute of Microelectronics (IME) and AMAT jointly set up a Centre of Excellence in Advanced Packaging in Singapore. This collaboration has helped make the country a world leader in packaging technology. AMAT has also engaged over 30 local small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to benefit, learn and grow in this ecosystem.
To catalyze industrial manufacturing, we also have the Technology for Enterprise Capability Upgrading (T-Up). Not only do we transfer technology, we also transfer people. In each T-Up effort, a company initiates an R&D project and a suitable researcher is deployed to the company usually for three months to two years to provide the company with technical expertise. Since the scheme started in 2003, we have deployed over 900 scientists. Currently, we are enhancing the scheme in partnership with the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT).
We have also contributed through the setting up of joint labs with local enterprises. In June 2021, A*STAR’s Advanced Remanufacturing and Technology Centre (ARTC) and local manufacturing company Arcstone launched a new digital manufacturing joint lab, intended to provide smart solutions to manufacturers.Meanwhile, in December 2020, A*STAR also established two R&D joint labs with ARTC members and local SMEs Tru-Marine and Abrasive Engineering to further build digitalization capabilities.
There are also the Model Factories, hosted by ARTC and the Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech). The initiative provides an end-to-end view of a digitalized factory shop floor that we walk our local companies through—whether it is barcode scanning, outdoor sorting or using AI for bag inspection. From there, we link companies up with suppliers to help them on that journey.
Last year, we created the Innovation Factory @ SIMTech with Enterprise Singapore (ESG). To date, it has 38 local SME members, and more than 20 product co-creation projects have been kick-started. Through the initiative, we want to bring design thinking into the entire productization process, and help our SMEs move from technology to component and finally, to product.
A*STAR is also pouring in resources into urban solutions and sustainability (USS). After all, Singapore is just a literal dot of about 700 km2, so we have to maximize our built environment.
Accordingly, another focus area for A*STAR is food security. In the past two years, we have partnered the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) to launch the Singapore Food Story R&D Programme, which has spawned many grant calls and projects exploring various work packages from alternative proteins to food safety.To ensure that the public benefits from these innovations, we are engaging in a multi-agency effort called FoodInnovate to bring Singapore’s food companies the resources they need to create and commercialize their products.
We also established the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI) in 2020 to investigate sustainable bio-manufacturing and engage in R&D to boost the local food supply. In the realm of alternative proteins, A*STAR’s CentRe of Innovation for Sustainable banking and Production of cultivated Meats (CRISP Meats) is set to work on technologies to anchor Singapore’s cultivated meats industry. To further drive innovation in food safety, we launched the Future Ready Food Safety Hub (FRESH) along with NTU Singapore and SFA earlier this year.
Finally, in the smart nation and digital environment space (SNDE), we are putting forward products like the government translation engine, known as SG Translate—based on speech technologies from the Institute for Infocomm Research(I2R).
At A*STAR, we hope to continue to impact the economy, society and health by lifting up science and tech capabilities in public agencies and helping companies move from good to great.
How does A*STAR strike a balance between basic research and research with more commercial value?
Over the past 10 years, A*STAR has pivoted more to translational research. However, we must not lose sight of basic research. While the short-term translational value may not be as obvious, we believe it may still translate into useful products 10 to 15 years later.
To this end, we are bringing up basic research to around a third of our overall portfolio within the next five years. Importantly, we are doubling down on investigator-led research. Since science is fundamentally about curiosity, it’s important to create a space for our scientists to pursue their passions and interests.
At the same time, to complement this bottom-up approach, there must be top-down programs, given limitations in R&D resources. Therefore, we must be very targeted and focused on what we want Singapore to be great at. We need to strike a good balance.
What are some of A*STAR’s strategies in foreseeing uncertainties and overcoming them?
Singapore has faced several challenges over the past years, from rising carbon emissions, COVID-19, workforce pressures and an ageing population on top of our original constraints like scarce land and a limited water supply. To address these challenges, we look at the demand landscape. For instance, when we see the ageing workforce, we infer that we need to engage in research that maximizes the human potential of Singaporeans.
At the same time, the pathway from basic science to successful translation does involve some serendipity. Not everything is deterministic. Consider the case of COVID-19, where we managed to bring diverse whole-of-A*STAR capabilities together—from harnessing bioinformatics, developing diagnostics tests, using automation to accelerate lab processes, modeling droplets dispersion and making masks, among others. In hindsight, we realized that many of these capabilities had actually been seeded 5 to 10 years ago, before the pandemic.
At the Bioinformatics Institute (BII), our researchers had been uploading and annotating sequences of virus strains worldwide for several years. These insights serendipitously proved useful with the onset of COVID-19. Today, BII is a key node for GISAID (Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data) and helps proofread and annotate virus sequences uploaded from around the world, supporting international diagnostic and therapeutic efforts.
What opportunities and challenges does A*STAR foresee in the next decade?
There are many positive things lined up for Singapore, especially for our startups. After 20 to 25 years of patient investing, you can see deep tech companies coming in and homegrown biotechnology companies like Lucence, MiRXES and ImmunoScape completing successful Series B and C rounds. These are companies that A*STAR had worked with for years.
Through these startups, we have a chance to perpetuate a virtuous cycle. If they exit well, then the founders can come back to reinvest in the ecosystem. I’m very hopeful that a lot of the efforts we’ve invested over the years will bear good fruit over the next five years.
But there are also other challenges that our R&D ecosystem continues to face, like the ability to scale due to our market size. Platforms like the DxD Hub and EDDC can help companies when it becomes too onerous in terms of infrastructure or overcoming regulatory hurdles.
Finally, we also foresee a need to encourage our next generation to go into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Not only is STEM about fulfilling one’s curiosity and passion, but it can create real value in the innovation-based economy that Singapore is trying to morph into in the next decade.
How is A*STAR instilling an entrepreneurial spirit in early career scientists?
Since 2016, A*STAR has had an incubator space called A*StartCentral, which has supported around 200 companies. We want to systematically expose our younger talents from the RIs to the startup scene and A*SC. After all, you can’t fully teach entrepreneurship. Somethings in life are ‘caught,’ rather than ‘taught.’ But after rubbing shoulders with a few entrepreneurs, you can get inspired.
Right now, our Enterprise division is working on various new value creation modalities such as centrally brokered spinoffs. The challenge for a lot of scientist-led companies is the business knowhow. If you have the science down pat, but not the business savvy, then your company will likely not make it in the marketplace. So we’re trying to bring in ‘startup 101’-style courses and partnering with heavyweights in Singapore to bring in real business knowhow and even funding, to complement our scientists and science.
How does A*STAR convince companies worldwide that Singapore is the place for investment?
Despite Singapore’s market size, companies recognize that we do good science and that we have good talent. How, then, can we act as a bridge for these companies into Southeast Asia? ESG and the Economic Development Board (EDB), for example, have a joint initiative called the Global Innovation Alliance, where they try to land Singaporean companies in different parts of the world, and vice versa.
Other aspects we try to develop are infrastructure and talent. Sometimes, the infrastructure needed by some deep tech companies is just too much for one company to fork out, so that’s where thoughtful interventions come in. We try to have shared infrastructure that companies can make use of. For instance, A*STAR is working with Temasek on the Food Tech Innovation Centre (FTIC), as there are many food startups coming into Singapore. We want to establish a shared space that offers pilot-scale facilities, R&D labs, demo kitchens and advisory services.
In terms of talent, as I mentioned, at A*STAR we T-Up a lot of our talent to enter companies, or we set up joint labs for open innovation together with the industry.
How can A*STAR better align with Singapore’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2025 (RIE2025) plan going forward?
Apart from what I’ve elaborated upon earlier across the four domains, we need to collaborate better within A*STAR and across the ecosystem. One way to foster habits of cooperation is through cleverly designed funding. At the ecosystem level, public agencies, the National Research Foundation Singapore and A*STAR, need to come up with schemes that promote collaborative grant applications. We want to look for meaningful collaborations where the whole ecosystem forms a winning combination to solve a particular problem.
Within A*STAR, we have been pushing for collaboration. We are trying to grow a champion team, and not just have teams of individual champions.
Can you tell us more about A*STAR’s efforts to engage the public?
It’s important to share science with the public for several reasons. The first is that people need to know you’re spending public monies to benefit Singapore and Singaporeans. Second, we need to make sure that we can excite the next generation to want to go into STEM. Over the past decade, we have partnered with Science Centre Singapore to encourage our lab scientists to have touchpoints with the public through conducting tours and mentorship opportunities. Usually these are one-off events, but I think we need to do more.
For instance, some secondary schools and junior colleges have R&D centers and labs. IHLs and A*STAR can encourage our scientists to be more visible and take up mentorship roles there, where they can inspire young people to be part of the scientific movement in Singapore. Science communication also plays a critical role. That’s why we put effort into publications like A*STAR Research as well as social media.
Last but not least, I would say that the ultimate marketing tool is when an institution creates impact. A*STAR’s output during COVID-19 allowed many other people to know what the agency is doing, whether it’s in developing diagnostic kits or smart masks. The work from GUSTO has also made an impact by informing MOH’s decision to conduct gestational diabetes screening for all expectant mothers. Ensuring that science leads to impact will continue to be our North Star at A*STAR.